Family Secrets: The Truths We Will Not Speak

WARNING: This post engages with the novel The Bluest Eye, and it explores the themes of incest and sexual violence which might be triggering or upsetting for some. Seek assistance from local faith leaders, social workers, or counselors to seek support and resources to heal from past trauma. 

          Hey, Free Agents! This week, I continue to consider the themes that emerge when reading Toni Morrison’s 1970 novel, The Bluest Eye. This post examines the generational curse of family secrets. In this season in which we celebrate mothers and fathers, we grapple with the burdens the sins of our parents have placed on us. As one who has not yet started a family of my own but hopes to do so one day, I know that a big part of joining my life with that of another person’s is grappling with the secrets that exist in my family. I must work through them so that my partner and I can begin anew as unencumbered by the failures of previous generations as possible. In other words, to live a productive life whether as a single or partnered person, we all need to learn to tell the truth, and that starts with learning to tell the truth in our families.

            What is a family secret? In my experience, family secrets are known family facts that are deemed to be too shameful to openly discuss instead become the elephant in the room through the generations. These secrets include things like secret divorces, children born out of wedlock, addiction, incest, and sexual violence. We carry these open secrets with us, and all are impacted by them differently. Some family members choose to leave home and never return; other family members stay to expose the secrets, others seek therapy, others are silenced, others, like Pecola Breedlove in The Bluest Eye, remain at home, driven mad by the unimaginable terror of it all.

               A family secret is the impetus of the drama in the popular show Greenleaf (I have only watched through the first season so don’t spoil it for me). The show, which airs on the OWN network, follows the Greenleaf family. The family runs a predominantly black (African American) Memphis area megachurch. Although they are publicly holy (they run a church after all!) they are surrounded by scandal and secrets that threaten to destroy not only the family but also the spiritual empire they have built. At the beginning of the first season, viewers meet the family through the return of their prodigal daughter, Grace (GiGi), who comes home after twenty years following the mysterious death of her sister, Faith. I think the show is popular not just because of a stellar cast and our insatiable appetite for scandalous entertainment, but because the story seems strangely familiar. Perhaps not all of us have families that run major churches or corporations (I would venture to say most of us do not), but all of us have family secrets. Because of respectability or shame or fear, we keep the secrets under wraps. I am convinced that no matter how painful our secrets may be, there is power in speaking our truths because it creates opportunities to have conversations where needed and creates space for the possibility of healing.

          To return for a moment to The Bluest Eye, those who have read the novel will remember that the tension of the story is that everyone around town knows that young Pecola is pregnant with her father’s baby. The incestuous violence done to the body of that young girl was an open secret, so no one in the family or the town provided any commentary about it. What Morrison does brilliantly in the novel is to let us, the readers, in on the secret before providing us with the backstory of what has brought the Breedlove family to this point.

              Pecola parents, Pauline and Cholly, had needed each other once. He was attracted to her pained song, inexperience, and brokenness (literally, she had a broken foot) and she was attracted to his joyful city boy tune. Neither of them had enjoyed comfortable childhoods. Cholly had been alone since he was thirteen, abandoned by his mother, raised by an old aunt who died, and rejected by his father. Even his first sexual encounter was shameful because some white men caught him in the field with his female companion and leered over their bodies. But, for reasons Cholly could never quite understand, he did not resent the white men who shamed him or the black men who rejected him. Instead, he despised the black women who only wanted to love him. He passed on that resentment and lack of love to his children.

             Pauline passed on to her children an obsession with physical beauty and romantic love that always seemed to elude her. Morrison captures Pauline’s pain at having to leave her family in writing about how Pauline lost her front tooth with the help of a brown speck that cut into the enamel and weakened the root. In their new hometown, Cholly resented her dependence on him, and they constantly argued about money until she began to work outside the home which helped with money but not with their marriage. That is when things began to spiral out of control until they found themselves living in a storefront with two children completely consumed by fighting and lovelessness and the sheer ugliness of it all. They all understood their situation and, instead of discussing it and changing course, they chose to carry on as things were.

         And so it was, with all the unresolved tension from a childhood and adulthood that were filled with abuse, trauma, and neglect that Cholly came home drunk and found his helpless daughter washing dishes in the kitchen. As he watched the pained, helpless girl, he was ashamed because he realized that he and the world had broken her and that there was nothing he could do to fix it. After sexually violating her, his resentment returned, and he left his daughter there on the floor until her mother found her and tended to her physical needs but not to her psychological or spiritual ones. Cholly raped his daughter and no one in the family had anything to say about it. Such acts of violence have happened in our families, in our communities of faith, and even in our friend groups. We have tended to physical wounds, we have cleaned up the scene, but we have said nothing, and in saying nothing, we have and are destroying ourselves.

               The show Greenleaf and the novel The Bluest Eye are both poignant fictional examples of the trouble with family secrets to me as a black American woman because they examine the particularity of black American family life. However, family secrets have no race, ethnicity, or socio-economic class. None of us can escape the terror of our families unless we face the terror head-on. Sometimes we need mediators and conversation partners to face these past traumas. Reach out to local faith leaders, counselors, and social workers for help, support, and resources as you seek to free yourself from painful family secrets. Peace to you on your journey toward wholeness. See you next week.